form of extremism. There are many other kinds that permeate modern American life. According to Oxford Dictionaries, extremism can be defined as “the holding of extreme political or religious views,” with a synonym being “fanaticism.” This is an example of an expository essay you might find in a personal blog or a sociology course.
Extremism in everyday life
This definition could be extended to include holding extreme intellectual views of any kind.
It is necessary to clarify what it means to be “extreme.” On one hand, it could just be a statistical definition of views that fall outside the norm within a given time, place, and culture. Understood in this way, extremism would not necessarily be a problem.
The Buddha was quite unorthadox in his methods and teachings.
Within his culture, the Buddha would have seemed extreme—but although he was unorthodox, he was in fact an enlightened man and a great spiritual leader. Here, extremism could be a healthy thing, as the statistical norm of views and attitudes is itself false and/or unhealthy.
The other definition of extremism, would be a specific kind of mindset: a mindset that closes people off to reality, to the point that people become unable to listen to others or consider alternative possibilities. This is generally the result of an excessively strong commitment to an idea or ideal that is too narrow to hold such a commitment in a healthy way.
It is this kind of extremism that will be the focus of the present sample essay provided by Ultius; and the essay will show that this kind of extremism is rampant in many areas of modern American life. In particular, the essay will consider extremism in science/academia, politics, and religion.
Through this panoramic consideration, it should become clear that extremism can rear its head in just about any area of modern culture, and that the most destructive kinds of extremism are ones that people refuse to acknowledge as such. This normalizes extremism and thus degrades the quality of the public discourse as a whole.
Extremism in science and academia
Science is by definition supposed to be the field of free thinking and open inquiry. It is especially ironic, when extremism emerges within this context. A key concept here is “confirmation bias”. According to Shahram Heshmat in Psychology Today,
“Confirmation bias occurs from the direct influence of desires on beliefs. When people would like a certain idea/concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are motivated by wishful thinking” (paragraph 2).
What this says is, if a scientist desperately wants a conclusion to be true (for he is after all only human), he may begin to interpret his data in such a way that it can be twisted to confirm his desired conclusion. Moreover, he may even begin framing research questions themselves in such way that he minimizes the chances of running into indisputable findings, or that his desired conclusion is false.
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson states that science doesn’t care what you believe.
Science and/or academia, as an institution, can develop taboos and/or codes of behavior that marginalize scientists and researchers who would like to pursue certain lines of questioning. This can end up fostering an entire culture of confirmation bias. One where researchers who pursue unorthodox lines of inquiry will be de-legitimized and treated as if their conclusions must be wrong as a matter of course.
This has nothing to do with science proper, because the proper scientific method is to posit specific, falsifiable hypotheses, and then investigate whether or not those hypotheses are valid (Popper).
With science, it does not matter what people want to be true. Science is about hard, objective facts. This is exactly why religious orthodoxies across history have often tried to suppress science and scientists that contradict religious teachings.
Science/academia is nonetheless filled with ordinary human beings, that can easily begin to develop their own orthodoxies. For scientists, much like non-scientists, there are things we would very much like to believe are true.
No climate change deniers needed
One example of extremism in science/academia can be seen with climate change. In America, many people have begun to treat this similar to a religious matter than a scientific matter. This is seen in frightening calls to punish “deniers” of climate change (Richardson).
The point is not whether climate change is real. The point is the way that people are thinking about climate change with a mob-mentality. When you hears calls to punish non-believers, you are in the presence of extremism.
From the extremist standpoint, people who disagree with you are not to be debated or argued against; rather, they are to be silenced or destroyed. Nothing could be further from the proper scientific mindset.
Scientists are supposed to be free to pursue their own lines of inquiry, and to come to whatever conclusions are suggested by the evidence. If a scientist uses a bad methodology and thus produces poor-quality findings, then his findings are to be rejected through a process of peer review and critical thinking.
Other scientists review the findings, and point out why the first scientist’s findings cannot be accepted as valid.
On the other hand, if a scientist conducts research according to proper methods and finds evidence suggesting that climate change is not occurring, and if no one can find anything wrong with the methods of his study, then his findings would have to be taken seriously.
It may contradict other evidence in the field, in which case scientists would need to analyze the various studies and identify possible reasons for the discrepancies in the findings. It is through this kind of critical method that science is able to proceed and generate new knowledge, while also rejecting old knowledge that has been found to be inaccurate or inadequate in light of further research.
This is a basic definition of the very nature of science itself. What is not scientific is, assuming that a researcher’s conclusions are false simply because you find those conclusions to be distasteful.
The science vs. religion debate isn’t something modern
The Catholic Church found Galileo’s conclusions to be distasteful, because they believed that it was important to hold onto the dogma that the Sun revolved around the Earth. The Church thus persecuted him, but Galileo was objectively correct. This shows that calling someone wrong just because you hate his conclusions is in fact the very opposite of what it means to be a scientist.
Galileo versus the Catholic Church
Galileo was persecuted by the Church for not adhering to the belief that the sun revolves around the Earth.
Many people would seem to be so invested in the reality of climate change that they have become extremist in the defense of its reality. They may of course still be very much correct that climate change is in fact a reality. The problem is the attitude and the method that is emerging with respect to the issue, which are decidedly unscientific.
This is likely related to the fact that climate change is so closely related to politics. The modern political scene is enough to make a fanatic of almost anyone, including scientists.
As even Ian Johnston of the Independent has acknowledged, climate change models are always wrong, because they are inherently trying to make their best guesses about things that are hard to predict by virtue of their very nature. The models are useful for certain purposes, but they have their limits.
In short, they should not be interpreted as apocalyptic prophecies.
Moreover, it is problematic that given the current climate (no pun intended) within science/academia, it would be very difficult for a legitimate scientist to find a hearing for potential findings that might suggest that the threat of climate change has been significantly exaggerated.
A scientist saying such a thing today would be condemned by the professional community. Not because they are wrong (which they may be) but simply on the basis of what they are saying.
This is a good example of how extremism seriously undermines the credibility of science and or academia.
No questioning sexuality
Another area where extremism can be seen in science and academia pertains to sexuality. Currently, it is the height of political incorrectness to question any aspect of the dominant narrative of gender, sexual orientation, and related matters.
Gender and sexuality are two hotly debated subjects in today’s landscape.
This intolerance of countervailing perspectives is, again, a clear sign that extremism has taken root. The current situation is one in which anyone who asks questions about the “born this way” narrative of homosexuality can automatically be labeled a bigot, with no opportunity for appeal.
The intensity of feelings about this issue are clearly related to how political the issue is, which again suggests that when a scientific/intellectual question becomes connected with politics, there is a strong risk of the rise of the extremist attitude.
The fact, is that there is substantial evidence that gender and sexual orientation are different from the way that the dominant cultural narrative would like to imagine them. Paul McHugh, for example, is University Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at the School of Medicine at John Hopkins University: if there was every such a thing as a scientific authority, it would be this man.
In a study that McHugh co-authored with Lawrence S. Mayer for The New Atlantis, the first key finding that is listed in the executive summary is:
“The understanding of sexual orientation as an innate, biologically fixed property of human beings—the idea that people are ‘born that way’—is not supported by scientific evidence.”
The study does not prove that the idea is not true, given that it is almost impossible for science to prove a negative. What the high-level study does indicate in no uncertain terms, however, is that the dominant narrative of “born that way” passionately embraced by modern society, and culture is not in fact supported by the existing scientific evidence.
If that notion is upsetting, this proves the point about extremism that is the focus of the present essay. An honest scientist should be able to either debunk this study through a careful analysis of its methods, or he should be able to accept the findings of the study as a reflection of objective reality.
Many people today, however, would likely become outraged over the conclusions of the study and insist that the authors of the study must be bigots. What they will not do is ask whether the methods of the study were sound and the conclusions thus valid, because of the passionate belief that the conclusions must be false as a matter of par for the course.
But this would be similar to the Church persecuting Galileo, on the basis of the assumption that his conclusions must be false, irrespective of the rigor and honesty of his methods. This is what extremism does to the way that people think about important issues. It makes it almost impossible to have an honest talk without becoming upset and resorting to name-calling or worse in order to shut down the supposed “enemy.”
Extremism in politics
It has been suggested above that science/academia seems to grow more extremist in relation to its proximity to politics, so it will be worth turning attention to extremism within the field of politics itself.
Everyone probably knows that since the recent presidential election, American politics has been more polarized and divided than any time in recent memory, with radical movements emerging on both the Right and the Left.
There would seem to almost be no concept of a shared American project any longer, with each end of the political spectrum seeing the other end as a genuine existential threat, such that the victory of the “wrong” side would result in the destruction of America altogether. Naturally, this kind of scenario provides ideal conditions for the development of extremism, and that can clearly be seen within the modern political landscape.
For example, today’s landscape has given birth to the Alt-Right. These people rightly believe that they have felt emboldened by the current American president. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alt-Right
“is a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that ‘white identity’ is under attack by multicultural forces using ‘political correctness’ and ‘social justice’ to undermine their people and ‘their civilization'” (paragraph 1).
The Alt-Right Source: ABC
Members of the Alt-Right clash with protesters on the left side in Charlottesville, VA.
Not all members of the Alt-Right are fascists per se, but there are in fact actual neo-Nazis within their ranks. The Alt-Right is rejected by both the political Left and by mainstream conservatives on the Right. Their ideology is an exemplar of extremism, in that they are essentially calling for a serious revolution that would newly re-establish America as a White ethno-state.
This is at radical odds with the basic character of American history and the American experiment, but this does nothing to deter them from their project.
It is also true, that there is a dark symbiosis between the Alt-Right on one hand and the identity politics of the Left, carried out by “social justice warriors.” The recent Google scandal involving James Damore, for example, is a persuasive example of how there is in fact an emerging cultural and political bias among Whites and males on the political Left (Weiss).
People say awful things about Whites in way that they would never dare to say about any other demographic groups. For example, this is clear in how “White trash” is still a common epithet, whereas “Black trash” would correctly be seen as inexcusable racism.
The Left tends to believe this is acceptable because of the social and political power that White men have historically possessed. This may be true to an extent; but what is also true is that this situation has gotten very far from Martin Luther King’s ideal of people being judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.
It is ultimately a form of extremism to think that Whites and males are uniquely awful, just as it was extremism to believe that in the past about Blacks, women, or any other demographic group.
There is the self-styled Antifa that has emerged on the Left, which is in fact no less illiberal in its ideology than its sworn enemy of the Alt-Right. As Daniel Penny of The New Yorker has reported,
“Antifa activists believe that Fascists forfeit their rights to speak and assemble when they deny those same rights to others through violence and intimidation” (paragraph 3).
According to Antifa, “fascists” lose their rights to speech and assembly by virtue of their repressive ideology. The deep irony here, however, is that Antifa is also using violence and intimidation to prevent people from speaking and assembling. By their own definition, then, they would be guilty of using fascist tactics.
Antifa Source: libcom
Antifa could also be considered the “Alt-Left”, although members despise that term.
Antifa would retort that they are doing this in response to the “actual” fascists, but their definition of fascism is so expansive that it could well end up including everyone who disagrees with them. The situation does become Orwellian, where Antifa itself becomes almost indistinguishable from the fascists it claims to oppose.
This type of blinkered thinking is also indicative of the strong presence of extremism. Essentially, extremism convinces you of your own infallible rightness. You begin to believe that you are on the correct side of History, and part of the force for Good.
That conviction has a funny way of preventing any form of meaningful self-examination from ever taking place. Moreover, if you are on the side of the Good, then this means that the people who are not on your side must be Evil—and of course, one cannot negotiate with Evil. One can only destroy Evil.
This entire psychology of extremism thus results in a dangerous escalation of conflict. It is completely against any sort of liberal norm that suggests that all people must be respected and protected in their liberty to speak their minds, even if you find some specific opinions to be completely distasteful. The whole point of freedom of speech is that it must be for everyone.
Double standards apply for both sides
A good example of the double standards produced by extremism can be seen in the shameful way that Michael Wolff, author of Fire and Fury, has attempted lewd innuendos regarding Nikki Haley, the female American ambassador to the United Nations.
As Bari Weiss has suggested in The New York Times, if a conservative had said such a thing about a liberal woman, the media would have rightly been completely outraged. But given that Haley is a conservative, and Wolff is a media darling for having published an attempted takedown of the president, he got, more or less, a free pass.
This kind of moral blindness is not the exclusive property of either the Left or the Right. It can also be seen in the way that conservative religious leaders on the Right will say anything to excuse President Trump’s behavior, even after having spoken for many years about the importance of character in public leaders.
This corruption of moral and intellectual integrity in the name of tribalism is one of the most important symptoms of extremism.
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Extremism in religion
Finally, we can also explore extremism within religion. This can be a tricky subject, due to the fact that in some contexts, extremism in this area is to be recommended. The Bible, for example, makes it clear that it is unacceptable for a believer to only have faith in a “lukewarm” way (Revelation 3:16).
For present purposes though, extremism can again be defined as an attitude of hostility or self-enclosedness in relation to the world of others, which can result in illegal actions and even murderous violence.
It is unquestionable that many terrorists have been motivated by religion to commit their atrocities. As Ayaan Hirsi Ali has pointed out in Salon magazine, the simple fact of the matter is that it is impossible to gain a clear understanding of the situation if one refuses to take seriously the stated motives of the killers themselves.
Religious extremism isn’t just an Islamic issue
When it comes to religion, extremism can often cut both ways, such that the opposition to extremism also becomes extremism. For example, most people would agree that attacks on abortion clinics are reflections of extremism. From the perspective of such extremists, life begins at conception, which means that an abortion clinic is akin to a death camp.
Robert L. Dear Source: Slate
Dear killed two civilians and one police officer in a standoff at Planned Parenthood in 2015.
The problem is that if the premise is accepted, the implication is almost logical: if one sincerely believed that life does in fact begin at conception, then an abortion clinic would in fact be akin to a death camp.
But of course very few people believe that logic in a literal way, even as many people do believe that life begins at conception. The moderate pro-life position would be to both want to prevent abortion, on religious grounds, and to nevertheless accept the rule of law and pragmatic compromise within American society.
On the other hand, it is clear that the fear of religious extremism can provoke a kind of secular extremism, which begins to take on increasingly religious characteristics of its own. For example, the Democrats in Congress recently blocked a piece of legislation that would provide protection for infants who are actually born as the result of failed abortions (DeSanctis).
If blowing up abortion clinics is extreme on the one hand, this is surely also a form of extremism on the other. The one is based on the religious premise that life literally begins at conception and that abortion is literally murder, such that it would be acceptable to commit murder (of abortion doctors) in order to prevent further murder.
This is most definitely an extremist position. But at the same time, it could also be suggested that being affirmatively pro-abortion is also a form of extremism in its own right—an extremism that is not religious per se, but is nevertheless a dark mirror of the religious extremism, in that it replicates the same sort of duplicity, callousness, and utter certainty that one’s own side is right.
As has already been shown above, such features define the general structure of extremism.
Extremism leads to discounting objective facts
Likewise, there is the extremism of Biblical Creationists. These are people who fully and seriously believe that science is reporting falsehoods, and that it should thus not be taught in schools without biblical modifications.
This is a clear case of refusing to have a conversation with points of view and forms of knowledge that threaten one’s own hermetically sealed idea of reality. That is almost the definition of extremism.
But on the other hand, more secular-minded people who altogether reject the notions of mysteriousness or unknowability regarding the universe are also being extreme in their own way. This is because science cannot prove a negative, and nor can it explain why things are the way they are.
Science cannot prove God does not exist. That would be an example of proving a negative, which is virtually impossible; and while science can explain what happened at the beginning of the universe, it is completely unqualified to provide any answers about why it happened.
The main point here is that religion tends to become extremist when it attempts to encroach on areas that do in fact properly belong to other domains, such as science or even logic. There is strong objective evidence, for example, that the physical world is structured such that the Earth revolves around the Sun.
One could argue that it looks like the Sun revolves around the Earth from our perspective on the Earth, and that this is what matters. What one cannot really argue, though, is that clear, objectively valid scientific methods have produced a clear, objectively valid picture of the universe.
The only way to develop a different picture would be to use a different methodology altogether, at which point the picture would no longer reflect objective reality, because it is science that tells us about objective reality. If religiously minded people simply declare that science must be wrong altogether, with no further explanation, then that would be an extremist perspective, in that it closes a person off into his own little, purely subjective picture of reality.
It becomes difficult to talk about religious extremism per se, because extremism is a religious mindset, irrespective of its particular object. The faith that some people have in climate change or the “born this way” narrative are in fact fully religious in their character, in that they are marked by dogmatic certainty about the true nature of things.
Westboro Baptist Church
Some groups, like the Westboro Baptist Church, are extremists for explicit religious reasons, but the fact is that all extremism is really the manifestation of a religious psychology gone bad.
The same can be said about the Alt-Right’s racial dogma, Antifa’s dogma that they are in fact fighting fascists, the Creationist’s dogma that science is a lie, and so on with all the other examples discussed in this essay, along with countless others.
All extremism is based on absolute faith in a narrow definition of reality, such that one is no longer able to remain reasonable in the face of challenges, and such that one no longer sees neighbors to engage in good faith but rather only enemies to be shut down or destroyed.
In summary, the present essay has considered the ways in which extremism arises in different areas of American life, with a specific focus on the areas of science/academia, politics, and religion.
Extremism has been defined here as a mindset that makes one closed off to reality as a result of being excessively committed to an idea or ideal that is unable to support that sort of commitment.
Some people may believe in climate change, or in the infallibility of the American president, in such a way that they must maintain an extremist commitment to the ideas that are impervious to any sort of discussion or rational refutation on the basis of objective evidence. Extremism is related to tribalism, which is why it makes sense that the political arena is especially prone to extremism. Science is supposed to be anti-extremist by nature, which makes it very ironic when extremism infects that domain as well.
Finally, this essay considered extremism in religion as well. Some examples of extremism emerging from explicitly religious motives were pointed out; but this inevitably opened onto a discussion of how the extremist mindset, as such, is intrinsically religious in its contours. Secular extremists can disagree with “religious” extremists, but they can still be united in their hatred of the perceived enemy, their certainty of their own rightness, and their incapacity for critical self-examination.
In short, extremism is defined more by the structure of a given mind than by any particular content or other of that mind. Though this has been a relatively brief analysis of a critical concern in the modern world, it is a rich subject area for more involved study or even a thesis project.
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